Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural Future

Posted by Ian on Sep 11, 2011 in blog, news

The David Winton Bell Gallery will present Building Expectation: Past
and Present Visions of the Architectural Future from September 3
through November 6. An opening reception and lecture by the exhibition
curator Nathaniel Walker will be held on Friday, September 9, from
5:30–7:30 p.m.

It has been said that the past is a foreign country—but it is the
future that remains undiscovered. Despite the obvious truth that no
one has been to the future, that no one has even seen a photograph of
it, the last two centuries have witnessed the rise of a body of visual
codes and tropes that are commonly seen and understood as
“futuristic.” These “progressive” or “modern” attributes are derived
from an entirely imaginary landscape, indicative of a destination that
is impossible to visit; yet nearly everyone can recognize the place
where no one has been.

Building Expectation: Past and Present Visions of the Architectural
Future offers a glimpse into this undiscovered country, presenting a
collection of historic and ongoing visions of the future from the
nineteenth century until the present day. The focus of the show is
less upon canonical designers or art-historical movements and more
upon broadly based, popular speculation in the public sphere. The
exhibition’s content has been drawn from a number of university
libraries and private collections, as well as the Swiss
state-supported museum of utopia known as the Maison d’Ailleurs (House
of Elsewhere). Many of these objects have never before been exhibited
in the United States.

The “world of tomorrow” has usually been imagined first and foremost
as a place—the new Promised Land, the millennial landscape. And
architecture, cast since the Enlightenment as the calling card for
cultural and technological periods in the “grand narrative” of human
development and progress, has always been one of the future’s most
revealing and recognizable features. The exhibition’s collection of
past architectural visions has been divided into three categories,
each highlighting a different motive or guiding principle in the
crafting of future worlds. First are imaginary places designed to
articulate and support political reform schemes, such as Robert Owen’s
early-Victorian industrial paradise of New Harmony, brought to life in
the highly detailed drawings he published to advocate a new world
order framed by garden-filled Gothic factories-for-living. The second
group of futuristic visions consists of exotic locales crafted to make
money on the open market by functioning as amusing and/or inspiring
distractions, such as the sparkling, whirring glass cities which fill
early-twentieth century pulp magazines and utopian romance novels.
The final category of past visions is made up of futuristic cityscapes
constructed to lend the prestige and promise of “the future” to
personalities, products, and corporations by cleverly (and often
beautifully) drawn lines of association, such as Syd Mead’s 1969
“Portfolio of Probabilities” commissioned by United States Steel.
Considered together, the many futuristic codes created and deployed in
these different categories of vision are revealed not as truly
“forward-looking” glimpses of tomorrow, but rather as artifacts of the
past that have been aesthetically formed and have acquired meaning in
historical processes of their own.

The final portion of the exhibition is dedicated to contemporary
visions of the future, chosen or commissioned for their makers’
ability to continue the critical conversation about the “world of
tomorrow.” A number of the participants offer futuristic design
paradigms that openly defy some of the most persistent dogmas of
progressive Modernism, while others take the conceptual processes of
technological evolution to their furthest extremes. All of them call
into question those aspects of “the future” that have been, and often
still are, taken for granted. Artists such as Pippi Zornoza, Jane
Masters, and Brian Knep, all based in New England, have created large
installations that are architectural in their scope as well as their
content. Others such as Swiss artist Christian Waldvogel and the
urban design firm DPZ are showing works resulting from years of study
and refinement in sites around the world.

Spanning the gap between past visions and contemporary concepts of the
future is a new drawing by illustrator Katherine Roy. It depicts the
wonderful but deeply troubled city of “Industria,” a radiant urban
landscape described in the largely forgotten 1884 novel Ignis by Comte
Didier de Chousy. A fevered, delirious paradise, it is the stage for a
satirical tragic comedy of utopian proportions, and Roy’s illustration
speaks on multiple levels to the past and ongoing cultural processes
that may be said to “build expectation.”